Walk & talk:Nick Brown

The founder of Nikwax and Páramo gives us the benefit of his 40 years of experience in the outdoor industry.

Words Matthew Jones

How did Nikwax start?

In 1977 I went to buy a new pair of walking boots at Alpine Sports in London and they tried to sell me some boot wax. I’d been mixing up my own waterproofing wax since I was 15, to keep my boots dry when trekking in Scotland, so I told the manager that I didn’t need any, and why. We had an interesting conversation and I ended up offering to make a batch for his shop. Soon other outdoor shops caught on and began to stock Nikwax too. I started production in my flat with a Primus stove and a tea urn, and later rented a small warehouse. Back then I used to make personal deliveries to the shops – the first big one was with a shopping trolley borrowed from Safeway, jogging down the Gray’s Inn Road. I had started out by creating a single product to solve a problem – waterproofing my walking boots. Gradually we devised other specially formulated products for different types of outdoor gear.

Nikwax is an industry leader in environmentally-friendly, sustainable production. Has this focus always been part of the company’s ethos?

We love the outdoors, so it’s important that we conserve our environment for future generations. The Nikwax focus has always been twofold – high performance products and minimum environmental impact. The latter has grown over the years; so much so that this year we completed our programme to balance carbon emissions for the entire 40 year history of Nikwax, by investing in tropical forest restoration. We used the World Land Trust’s Carbon Balanced programme, which enables organisations to offset their emissions through the protection of carbon-rich wildlife habitats. We’d like to show other companies how easy it is to take this step. If we all balanced our emissions, the world would be carbon neutral.

Where did your passion for the environment come from?

I’ve always taken environmental responsibility seriously. In the 1980s and 90s I was vocal about the outdoor industry needing to be accountable for its impact, particularly the use of CFCs. It is great to see the industry moving in the right direction now, although a lot more needs to be done. At this year’s annual trade event for the outdoor industry, only 14% of brands present were signed up to EOCA, the European Outdoor Conservation Association. If we all support this cause we can make an even greater positive impact on our environment.

What are the greatest threats to the environment?

Climate change due to CO2 emissions and the degradation of natural environments. Recent disasters due to extreme weather, which can be attributed to changes in atmospheric circulation driven by the melting Arctic, in turn driving climate instability, have shown the problem is a real and present danger. As far as human health is concerned, persistent organic pollutants are another time bomb. For example, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), widely used in many industries, do not break down in the environment and bio-accumulate in humans, causing cancer, low fertility and problems with the immune system.

Nikwax is well known for its Analogy waterproof system, used by Páramo and other brands. What’s the concept behind the system?

Nikwax Analogy mimics the action of mammal fur by pushing liquid water outwards. We call that process ‘directionality’. This protects wearers from rain, condensation and perspiration, whilst also preserving their insulation. The double fabric system combines the pumping action with wind-proofing. Because the system actively directs liquid water outwards, it is more effective in high humidity conditions than membranes that can only deal with water vapour.

Where does the brand name Páramo come from?

Páramo is an ecological region in the Northern Andes of South America. It lies above the tree line and below the snowline. Its damp and windy environment is the ideal all-year-round testing ground for wet weather clothing.

Tell us about Páramo’s ethical manufacturing partnership with the Miquelina Foundation in Colombia.

The Miquelina Foundation was set up by a nun, Sister Esther Castaño Mejia, to offer help for vulnerable women in Bogotá, Colombia. She bought some second-hand sewing machines and set up a workshop to give the women a livelihood. I came across Miquelina in 1992 when they had only 20 workers. Since then Páramo and Miquelina have grown together, allowing Miquelina to help many women and enabling Páramo to make high quality outdoor clothing. This year Miquelina gained Fair Trade certification, a fantastic achievement. In the years we have worked together, thousands of people have benefitted, but possibly most of all, the children. It is amazing to hear how a new generation are studying and building better lives. The alternative for them might well have been delinquency and prostitution.

Why does Páramo clothing attract such a dedicated customer base, including many Ramblers?

Performance is key. We combine innovative technology with clever design that gives optimum freedom of movement and versatility.  People like Páramo because it keeps them more comfortable and allows them to stretch their personal limits in challenging environments. Of course, people also love the ethical aspect. A well-known outdoor photographer once said to me: ‘When I see someone wearing Páramo, I think: “they must be a nice person!”’ That’s the highest praise I’ve ever received.

Do you see affinities between your approach and the mission of the Ramblers?

Enjoying the outdoors is at the heart of both Nikwax and Páramo, and taking care of it is part of that process. The more people that can get outside and enjoy what it has to offer, the better. I am sure that all environmentalism, as with most things that have worth in life, is based upon love. What better way to fall in love with your environment than through walking?

After 40 years, do you still think the outdoor industry is genuinely innovative?

Absolutely. I was not a great fan of business when I started out. I started my own business because I would have been an awkward employee, not because I had financial aspirations. But I have learned that consumer demand can drive really great innovation, and that outdoor consumers are sensitive to the environment, especially in Europe but all over the world.

Why has it taken so long for some outdoor brands to take their environmental impact seriously?

That’s really for them to answer. However, smaller, privately owned businesses like Nikwax and Páramo sometimes have greater freedom to take risks. Being vocal about environmental issues can be a risky strategy. But we’re proud that Páramo was featured as a ‘Detox Champion’ by Greenpeace last year, as part of their campaign focus on the outdoor industry.

What does the future hold for the outdoor industry?

Climate change is a real and present danger. Brands work on seasons and the seasons are not as predictable as they used to be. For example, when there is little snow in the Alps over winter, the industry takes a big hit. The future has to be about adaptation and versatility.

Should consumers be more environmentally conscious when they are buying new outdoor kit?

Products have to perform, which is why we focus on ensuring ours do to an extremely high standard, because they are protecting you in a potentially dangerous environment. Beyond that consumers can choose how much of a role sustainability plays in their purchasing decisions. We will continue to do what we can to produce high performance products while educating people on sustainability.

Which of Nikwax’s many achievements are you most proud of?

To still be going strong after 40 years and building a team of dedicated and committed people who made that happen feels pretty good. To be able to say that we are now carbon balanced across 40 years is an achievement. But during my time with Nikwax we have achieved four Queen’s Awards for Industry, and it is the last one, awarded for Sustainable Development, of which I am most proud.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE…

  • COUNTRY WALK? The walk across South Uist to the bothy at Usinish.
  • CITY WALK? I used to travel a lot by rail on business, and Salzburg in Austria was a favourite stop. It combines a city with beautiful higher-level paths and access to wonderful mountains.
  • VIEW? Macchu Picchu in Peru, looking down to the river and the rainforest and up to the snowy 6,000 metre peaks – in one view! Nothing else that I have experienced, even in the Himalayas, gives the same sense of grandeur.
  • PIECE OF KIT? Páramo Cascada trousers – walking in waterproof trousers in appalling wet and windy conditions and feeling like you are wearing pyjamas.
  • POST-WALK TIPPLE? Laphroaig whisky – I was introduced to it by my university lecturer, who became a lifelong friend.

WIN one of four bundles of Nikwax products, worth £40 each, to celebrate the brand’s 40th year. Enter at ramblers.org.uk/competitions